Removing Rust from Garden Tools

If your garden tools are looking rusty, you have several options for cleaning them and restoring the metal.

Commercial Remedy

WD-40 has been used successfully to remove rust from tools.  Spray the rusty area with a little WD-40 and scrub with No. 1 steel wool.  Once the rust is removed, rinse away the steel wool dust, let dry, spray a rag with the WD-40 and wipe the metal with the rag.

Natural Remedies

White Vinegar – You can remove rust from your garden tools by filling a plastic container with undiluted white vinegar.  Completely submerge the rusted parts in the vinegar and soak the tool for at least 24 hours.  The vinegar’s acids will penetrate the rust and make it easy to remove. Don’t panic if the tool turns dark, this will come off after brushing with a non-metal brush under running water.

Molasses – To remove rust from metal, mix one part molasses to 12 parts water in a plastic bucket. Submerge the tool in the mixture and soak for at least 24 hours. If the rust still remains, let the tool soak a little longer. When the rust is dissolved, scrub with a non-metal brush or sponge under running water.

Cola – Strangely enough, dark colas contain phosphoric acid which can dissolve iron oxide from rusted metal objects.  It might be the more expensive way to go, but it’s reported to work well.  Cover the metal with cola, soak for 24 hours or until the rust rubs off easily, then scrub with a non-metal brush or scrubbing pad under running water.

Once tools are rust free, dry the metal completely with an oiled rag to maintain its luster.  To keep your tools clean and rust free, fill a 5-gallon bucket with builder’s sand.  Pour a quart of oil (can be motor oil or vegetable oil) into the sand and stir around. Plunge your shovels and garden tools into the sand and move up and down a few times before removing from the sand.  Wipe with a clean rag and store as usual.


Perennials for Season Long Color

Perennial plants that come back every year require less maintenance, which is a good thing.  The downside is that many only bloom for a short period of time. You can have continuous color all season long by planting perennials in your flower beds that bloom at different times of the season, so something is blooming all the time.

If you need more plants, you can divide perennials to make more plants. Perennials can become overcrowded and need to be rejuvenated by dividing. An overgrown daylily or hosta can be divided into several new plants..  If you find a perennial you love in the garden center, buy one, plant it, wait a few years, and you’ll be able to divide it and have more plants.

Nature is capricious, so the plants bloom when they consider the conditions are right, so it’s hard to show a specific date, but here is when to generally expect the first blooms in USDA plant zone 4.

Bloom Times for a Few Common Perennials

March-April – helleborus (lenton rose), crocus, daffodils, hyacinth, candytuft, brunnera, pulmonaria

April-May – Virginia blue bells, muscarii, campanula, poppy, baptista, potentilla, anemone, iris

May-June – creeping phlox, ajuga (bugleweed), lungwort, peony, iris, clematis, hollyhock, monarda, agastache, butterfly weed, baby’s breath, shasta daisy (and weeds!).

June-July – daylily, hardy geranium, red hot poker, coneflower, lavender, agastache, lady’s mantle, garden phlox, coreopsis, liriope, hibiscus, delphinium, black eyed susan, astilbe, cardinal flower, Russian sage, gaillardia,

July-August – helenium, oriental lily, liatris, allium, salvia,

August-September – sweet Autumn clematis, aster, sedum



Spring Care for House Plants

Your house plants have been breathing dry, heated, indoor air all winter, so show them a little love in the spring and give them a new lease on life.  Many house plants will slow down or stop growth in winter, but when spring arrives and days are longer, they will perk up and start growing again.


House plants enjoy an occasional shower to remove dust.  The easiest way is to take them to a shower or deep sink and give them a good spray of water.  Inspect for any bugs that may have hopped a ride over the winter and remove them.  Plants with fuzzy leaves can skip this step as they don’t like wet leaves.

Signs of Distress

Some house plants live happily in the same pot for years. Just look for these signs that they need a bigger pot:  roots circling around the root ball or growing out of the bottom; the soil is always dry and doesn’t seem to hold moisture for very long; the plant is slow to grow.

Choosing a Pot

Choose a new pot only one size larger than its current one.  If reusing pots from other plants, scrub well with soap and water or run them through the dishwasher to kill any latent diseases. Make sure they have adequate drainage.


Water the plant well a day or two before removing it from the pot. Trim any roots growing out the bottom before trying to remove it.  Gently remove the root ball from the pot and inspect the roots. If they are circling around the bottom or up the sides, gently straighten them out and trim off any that appear dead or dying.


Fill the pot half way up with sterile potting mix and put the root ball into the new pot so it’s top is at the same level as before. Fill with soil;  lightly pack as you go. Water well to let the soil settle, then add more soil if needed. Allow the plant to adjust to the new pot for a few weeks before fertilizing with fish emulsion or an organic compost solution.



Building a Cold Frame

Spring is right around the corner and having a cold frame can give you a place to get plants off to an early start.  A cold frame is a box, usually with the back higher than the front, and with an old window or clear covering on top.  The covering is hinged to allow access to the inside of the box.


Cold frames can be made from wood, concrete blocks, straw bales, bricks and stone or whatever material you have available that will form a windbreak. Concrete blocks, bricks, and stones absorb heat from the sun and transfer that heat to the inside of the box.

Setting it Up

Faced south, the sun warms the glass and the inside of the box so that the plants are safe from cold, frost, and wind.  The cold frame maintains that heat through the night to keep the plants from freezing.

Grow Fresh Veggies All Winter

It’s possible to grow enough lettuce, kale, spinach, and other cold-hardy vegetables all winter in the cold frame.  The ideal temperature inside the frame is 50-60 degrees, so on really sunny days, you may need to prop the window open to allow air circulation and avoid overheating the inside.

Straw Bale Cold Frame

For a straw bale cold frame, position straw bales in a square or rectangle in whatever size you need, then top the bales with old windows or other clear covers. Fill the center with compost or layer brown and green material (leaves, grass clippings, shredded paper, wood ashes, plant debris, compost, etc.- called lasagna gardening) and plant seeds or seedlings.

Wood Cold Frame

For a wood cold frame, use 2X10 lumber to build the base of the box to fit your covering or windows.  For the second level, cut the end pieces at an angle from one corner to the other to create a slanted top. Hinge the window(s) at the back and you’re ready to plant.

Other Materials

With other materials, build the back higher than the front so the window slants to the south to absorb the sun.

References:   Search Cold Frames



Caring for Seedlings

Seeds planted in damp seed starting material shouldn’t need more water until they show green and start growing. If you’ve covered your seed trays with a clear plastic cover, or plastic wrap, they should stay plenty moist, but check your seed trays weekly for moisture after a couple of weeks. A spritz of water from a spray bottle should be enough.


Most seeds need to be in a room with temperatures between 65-80 degrees. The seed packet should tell you what temperature to maintain, but if it doesn’t you can look up online the variety you are growing. You can use a heat mat under the seed trays to help keep the soil at the desired temperature, or additional warmth can be supplied by lights close to the soil. Once the seedlings start to grow, they will need light.

Moving to Light

When your seeds have germinated and are showing green, it’s time to take the plastic covers off and get the babies under lights. It’s possible to grow seedlings in a bright sunny south facing window, but make sure they don’t get too hot.

First Green Leaves

The first green leaves to show on your seedlings are called cotyledons (temporary leaves) and don’t conduct photosynthesis. Sometimes these will even have the seed still attached like the picture above. True leaves will develop and look different.. Once the true leaves appear, the cotyledons will wither and fall off. After a few more leaves grow, you can transplant the seedling into a bigger pot or into the garden.


While your seedlings are inside, watering is critical. As they grow and form a canopy over the flats, you need to make sure they are getting water at the roots, so you’ll need to put water directly on the soil and not on top of the leaves. Overhead watering can lead to disease and do as much damage as too much or too little water.

When to Plant Seeds

Planting vegetable and flower seeds indoors to get a head start on garden plants is a good idea if you like gardening, have limited funds, or want a large volume of plants.  If you only need a few plants and you’d like quick and easy, buying transplants at the garden center may be best for you.


There is a therapeutic effect to planting seeds and watching them peek their heads out of the dirt and grow into plants you can put in the garden. Gardening relieves stress and gives you a sense of well-being.

Last Frost Date

So, if you plant seeds, you’ll need to know when to plant them so that they are ready to plant out into the garden at the optimum time.  The last frost date in Billings is somewhere between May 16th and May 30th.  Start thinking about planting cool season crops when soil temperature averages at least 40° F(4° C) and warm season crops when the average is 50° F (10° C) or more

Plant Hardiness Zones

Montana has seven plant hardiness zones, so if you live outside the Billings area consult the USDA Agricultural Research Service Plant Hardiness Zones linked below.  The last frost dates may change depending on your zone. The frost-free growing season is around 125 days. Last frost date is September 18th in Billings.


Plants grown indoors will only be happy in their small pots, cells, or flats for about 8 weeks. By then they will have used up the nutrients and be struggling for water. If you can’t plant them outside yet, repot them into larger pots.  Large yogurt and cottage cheese containers are great for this. After hardening off, most cold weather plants can be put into the garden a couple weeks before the last frost date.

Warm Season Plants

Warm season plants need warm soil temperatures to thrive (55 and above), so wait until after the last frost date and check the soil with a thermometer. Counting back from the maturity date and adding a couple of weeks for the seeds to germinate should give you a general idea of when to plant seeds. The back of the seed packet should tell you how long the seeds need to germinate and the maturity date.



How Long Does It Take?

When planning what to plant in your vegetable garden, take into consideration how long it takes the plants to mature and be harvested.  Vegetables that mature quickly will do well grown from seed. Others that take a long time may be best bought as seedlings at the garden center where they have been grown in the greenhouse and have a good head start.

Plants that need to mature before the very hot days of summer (cold crops) would also be candidates for buying as seedlings. Warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers can go either way. If you plant seeds in mid-March, your plants will be ready to go into the garden by June.  If you wait too late to start seeds, you may be better off buying seedlings when the weather is best.  The maturity times below for a few most popular vegetables refer to the time that the seeds sprout to when they can be harvested.

Cool Season Plants

Swiss Chard – 50 days

Cabbage – 60-70 days

Kale – 50-55 days

Leaf Lettuce 40-45 days

Head Lettuce – 70-80 days

Peas 50-65 days

Broccoli – 70 days

Brussels Sprouts – 90-100 days

Cauliflower – 50-55 days

Radishes – 20-30 days

Carrots – 65-70 days


Warm Season Plants


Tomatoes – 60-85 days

Peppers – 70-80 days

Zucchini and Yellow Squash – 55-65 days

Watermelon – 100-130 days

Bush Beans – 45-50 days

Sweet Corn – 65-80 days

Cucumber – 50-60 days

Bush Beans – 45-50 days

Pole Beans – 60-65 days

Pumpkin – 100 days

For a comprehensive list of plants and maturity times, see the Montana Master Gardener article on Planting a Successful Home Vegetable Garden.


Basic Tools for the Beginning Gardener

If you’re just starting to garden, here are some tools and accessories that will make your job easier. If you’ve been gardening for a while, you may need to renew or replace some of your tools.

Gloves – Working in the soil can quickly dry out hands and cause cracking, to say nothing about blackened fingernails and cuticles which can be hard to get clean. Gloves are especially necessary when working with manure, compost, and mulch.  Leather gloves are good when carrying concrete blocks, rocks, or pavers. Nitrile gloves are easier to work with when handling plants as their thinner structure allow more control.

Hand Pruners – There are four basic designs of pruning shears. In the bypass pruner, the blades pass each other to cut. For thicker branches, the bypass ratcheting pruner comes in handy. For cutting spent flower heads, the pruning shears are great. Finally, the last design has a narrow plate on which the cutting blade strikes to make the cut.

Watering Can – You’ll like having one of these with small holes in the spray head for watering tender seedlings and new plants; and it will take water to places the hose won’t reach.

Hand Trowel –The hand trowel will come in handy for digging planting holes, scooping compost, filling pots with potting soil, and a bunch of other uses in the garden. Wood handled, maple or white oak, are tougher and last longer than fir and pine. You can sand down the handle and paint it bright colors so you can find it easily. For the strongest trowel, look for carbon steel, stainless steel, or tempered.

Garden Hose – You’ll want enough hose to reach the farthest garden plot. If you have multiple outdoor faucets, you’ll want a hose with a spray nozzle attached to each one. Kink proof is great because there’s nothing more annoying than a kinked hose. If you go for the newer “shrinking” hoses, be sure to release the pressure in them when you are finished watering.

Garden Rake – A fan rake works for leaves and small piles of debris, but for heavier jobs like moving dirt and raking garden beds, you’ll want a welded bow rake.

Garden Digging or Soil Knife – You’ll keep this knife close to you as it has many uses like digging weeds, opening plastic bags of mulch and potting soil, and cutting string

Different Types of Seed Trays

You can plant seeds in almost any type of container, but using a commercial seed tray may cut down on the need to transplant up to a bigger pot. I have seen people start seeds in egg cartons, which, you know, are very shallow, and if you only start a few seeds each year egg cartons may work just fine for you. The new ones that have a clear cover work the best. The cover keeps the moisture in until the seedling come up.

Plastic Seed Trays

Black plastic seed trays come in kits with the sectioned wells, an open tray to hold the seed tray, and a clear plastic cover to retain moisture. The trays have small round or square wells for anywhere from 12 to 72 seeds.

Biodegradable Peat Pots

Another type of tray has biodegradable peat pots, called Jiffy pots in the tray kits instead of plastic wells. The peat pots eliminate the need to transplant your seedlings because you can separate the wells and plant the pot right along with the seedling.

Jiffy Pots

In addition to peat pots, there are Jiffy pellets available. These are small round dehydrated and flattened out pellets that swell up to about 1 ½ inches and are covered with a fine cloth mesh which the roots can grow out through. These can also be planted directly into the garden.

Cow and Coir Pots

Other biodegradable pots include cow pots made from 100% odor-free composted cow manure and Coir pots made from pulverized coconut shells. The biodegradable pots fully decompose in the ground so no need to transplant and they add soil-conditioning natural nutrients to your garden.

Seed Starting Mix

When planting seeds, you will have the best results if you use a good, organic commercial seed starting mix. These mixes have nutrients in them, are light and airy to allow tender roots to grow, and retain moisture well.